On Epicurean Virtue

A discussion of Epicurean virtue is needed as a result of our constant encounters with students of philosophy who have been exposed to Stoic and Platonic notions about virtue devoid of context and of telos, as we understand it.

Clarifying some of the Problematic Issues

Concerning the end that nature has established for natural beings, our teachers insist that the end is pleasure, and Polystratus goes as far as saying that not having a clear understanding of how pleasure is the end is the architect of all evils. This is because of the confusion of values problem: people fail to attach accurate value to things and develop artificial systems of value that are not aligned with the nature of things. For the sake of the virtue of courage they may fight needless wars that generate more suffering than pleasure in the end; for the sake of the so-called “virtue” of duty they commit attrocities and accept authoritarian models of ethics that are dehumanizing. Virtue, to us, has no value if it does not lead to net pleasure after we subject our choices and avoidances to hedonic calculus.

Virtues in Epicurean doctrine are, therefore, downgraded to the status of means to pleasure whereas the Stoics see “Virtue” as the end … “Virtue” here in the singular, which is usually a symptom that we are being presented with a Platonized concept divorced from context in nature. Perhaps a good comparison to Epicurean virtues is the very practical conception of Buddhist upayas, which translate as efficient means, and incorporate not just virtues as they are frequently understood, but also specific techniques and practices.

Another crucial issue, which was discussed already in our Reasonings About Philodemus’ scroll On the Stoics, had to do with how when words are not clearly defined, they become useless.

A third issue emerged in our Reasonings About Philodemus’ scroll On Anger which puts our School in direct opposition with Stoic notions about virtue: it’s the compassionate recognition of anger and indignation as potentially having both a virtuous disposition and usefulness.

Our insistence in dethroning virtue in favor of pleasure, and others’ confusion of the means with the end, has produced discussions where we have been accused of being haters of “Virtue”, again in the singular. As a result of these controversies, and also as a way of extending the olive branch to our Stoic brethren, these reasonings on the Epicurean virtues attempt to rescue them from Platonized, dis-embodied oblivion, to capture them from the heavenly realms and to find where in nature the virtues can be observed and in what way they may lead to maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain.

Ancient Epicureans did not frequently address the virtues as points of reference, preferring instead to speak in clear and concise terms and to avoid words that were not clearly defined, but Frances Wright in her work A Few Days in Athens did incorporate a sermon on the virtues that might be a good starting point to explore them.

The Practical Means to Long-Term Pleasure Can Work in Unison

Epicurus stood in the midst of the expectant scholars. “My sons,” he said, “why do you enter the gardens? Is it to seek happiness, or to seek virtue and knowledge? Attend, and I will show you that in finding one, you shall find the three. To be happy, we must be virtuous; and when we are virtuous, we are wise. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

The problems generated from seeking virtue without knowledge are explored by Polystratus in his Irrational Contempt. They mostly deal with degenerating into degrading superstition. The above may have been a paraphrase of the fifth Principal Doctrine, which states:

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.

except that, if you’ll notice, the original doctrine excludes a reference to virtue because, as I said, the founders were hesitant to use words that led to misinterpretation and favored clear speech; and, as we’ve discussed, this is one of the criticisms of virtue in our school.

It frequently seems that A Few Days in Athens was written, in part, to appease worshipers of Virtue, of whom Frances Wright says that “many worship at the altar of Virtue, but few stop to inspect the pedestal on which She stands“. That pedestal is, of course, pleasure.

The first four doctrines correlate to the Four Cures, which constitute the basic points of the ethical doctrine. The fifth doctrine must have been important enough in our ethics, that it had to follow the Tetrapharmakon, as if only the Four Cures had been more important. I believe the reason for this has to do with it relating to the accusations by the philosophers of the polis that a hedonist could not be a good citizen. Professor John Thrasher addresses how Epicurean contractarianism answers this accusation. A modern version of the same accusation is the sociopath argument, where we have been asked “What is to keep a sociopath / psychopath from being a good Epicurean?”. The reply to this is found in Epicurus’ teaching that a sage will be willing to give his life for a friend, and also in Principal Doctrines 5 (above) and 39, which says:

The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life.

The answer to the sociopath argument seems to be that we would ostracize this person and exclude him from our lives, and in fact the modern justice and prison systems already do just that. Our friend Cassius says:

Most sociopaths do not pursue pleasure wisely, honorably, and justly, and therefore cannot live happily, because the human nature of those around him will punish him and prevent it.

Which is true: the potential repercussions of sociopathic behavior include not only imprisonment, but also isolation, loss of support from friends and family, potential loss of jobs and other opportunities and sources of income. It is impossible, or at least very difficult, to have friendship or conduct business with partners who lack the ability to establish trusting relations with others.

And so, in order to ensure a life of pleasure, we must have knowledge of nature to avoid superstitious fears, and we must have blessed friendship which excludes sociopathic behavior and requires many wholesome dispositions. Happiness, wisdom, and the virtues all lead to the natural end that nature has established for us: the pleasant life.

Frances Wright’s Survey of the Epicurean Virtues

The relevant portion begins with Epicurus inviting his followers to sit and study at the feet of Philosophy with an open disposition, without pedantry and pretension.

Let us then begin: and first, let us for a while hush our passions into slumber, forget our prejudices, and cast away our vanity and our pride. Thus patient and modest, let us come to the feet of philosophy; let us say to her, ‘Behold us scholars and children, gifted by nature with faculties, affections, and passions. Teach us their use and their guidance. Show us how to turn them to account — how best to make them conduce to our ease, and minister to our enjoyment.’ – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Then, just as we see in the Bible’s wisdom books, where Wisdom speaks in the first person, the same thing happens:

“Sons of earth,” says the Deity, “you have spoken wisely; you feel that you are gifted by nature with faculties, affections, and passions; and you perceive that on the right exertion and direction of these depends your well-being. It does so. Your affections both of soul and body may be shortly reduced to two, pleasure and pain; the one troublesome, and the other agreeable. It is natural and befitting, therefore, that you shun pain, and desire and follow after pleasure. Set forth then on the pursuit; but ere you start, be sure that it is in the right road, and that you have your eye on the true object. Perfect pleasure, which is happiness, you will have attained when you have brought your bodies and souls into a state of satisfied tranquillity. To arrive at this, much previous exertion is requisite; yet exertion, not violent, only constant and even. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Philosophy begins by pointing the finger at our natural faculties. The study of nature must begin from where we are, from the tools that we have to apprehend her. Among these tools, the one that is most relevant to ethics is the pleasure and aversion faculty. The natural goal established by our own nature is asserted as the first thing that we must clearly understand.

Immediately, the author knows that some will equate pleasure with debauchery and mindless instant gratification. She then introduces Prudence as the mother of all the virtues and handmaiden of wisdom. Sometimes translated as practical wisdom, prudence is a shortened form of pro-videntia, or prior-seeing, that is, seeing before things happen, seeing ahead (and planning ahead). Here, with regards to control of desires, Prudence is the reasoning faculty by which we conduct hedonic calculus, the comparative measure of pain versus pleasure over the long term.

And first, the body, with, its passions and appetites, demands gratification and indulgence. But beware! for here are the hidden rocks which may shipwreck your bark on its passage, and shut you out for ever from the haven of repose. Provide yourselves then with a skilled pilot, who may steer you through the Scylla and Charybdis of your carnal affections, and point the steady helm through the deep waters of your passions. Behold her! it is Prudence, the mother of the virtues, and the handmaid of wisdom. Ask, and she will tell you, that gratification will give new edge to the hunger of your appetites, and that the storm of the passions shall kindle with indulgence. Ask, and she will tell you, that sensual pleasure is pain covered with the mask of happiness. Behold she strips it from her face, and reveals the features of disease, disquietude, and remorse. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Wright then argues that prudence leads to ataraxia, which translates as equanimity. A beautiful, poetic comparison of a pleasant life of ataraxia as “neither a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but a placid and crystal stream”. Notice how she sees ataraxia in positive terms, not as mere pain relief (the common academic interpretation of Epicurean ataraxia), but as pleasant abiding, “healthy contentment”, joy.

Ask, and she will tell you, that happiness is not found in tumult, but tranquillity; and that, not the tranquillity of indolence and inaction, but of a healthy contentment of soul and body. Ask, and she will tell you, that a happy life is like neither to a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but to a placid and crystal stream, that flows gently and silently along. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Mother Philosophy then presents the virtues, beginning with temperance or moderation. She contributes to hedonic calculus by protecting us from “future evil” (evil means suffering to an Epicurean), and from “all disquiet to the soul and injury to the body”.

And now Prudence shall bring to you the lovely train of the virtues. Temperance, throwing a bridle on your desires, shall gradually subdue and annihilate those whose present indulgence would only bring future evil; and others more necessary and more innocent, she shall yet bring down to such becoming moderation, as shall prevent all disquiet to the soul and injury to the body.

Fortitude or endurance is seen next. Perhaps another word for courage, she protects us from fears and from fate.

Fortitude shall strengthen you to bear those diseases which even temperance may not be efficient to prevent; those afflictions which fate may level at you; those persecutions which the folly or malice of man may invent. It shall fit you to bear all things, to conquer fear, and to meet death.

Justice and generosity follow. The first one adds to our pleasure by making us safe among our neighbors. The latter one wins us friends, which are one of the most persistent sources of intense pleasure in life. Friendship is also addressed below.

Justice shall give you security among your fellows, and satisfaction in your own breasts. Generosity shall endear you to others, and sweeten your own nature to yourselves. Gentleness shall take the sting from the malice of your enemies, and make you extract double sweet from the kindness of friends.

Then, we see gratitude and friendship among the virtues. There are many documented benefits of gratitude, but here the author mentions how it helps us to bear our obligations pleasantly. In my studies of Epicurean doctrine, I’ve come to conclude that it’s impossible to profit from it if one is ungrateful.

Gratitude shall lighten the burden of obligation, or render it even pleasant to bear. Friendship shall put the crown on your security and your joy. With these, and yet more virtues, shall prudence surround you. And, thus attended, hold on your course in confidence, and moor your barks in the haven of repose.”

Also, notice here how pleasure is a gift of nature, and the virtues have to attend to nature as the final authority. In our tradition we never rebel against nature. That is the equivalent of rebelling against reality.

But, my sons, methinks I hear you say, ‘You have shown us the virtues rather as modifiers and correctors of evil, than as the givers of actual and perfect good. Happiness, you tell us, consists in ease of body and mind; yet temperance cannot secure the former from disease, nor can all the virtues united award affliction from the latter.’ True, my children, Philosophy cannot change the laws of nature; but she may teach us to accommodate ourselves to them. She cannot annul pain; but she can arm us to bear it.

After the train of the virtues is presented and the natural limits of the virtues are addressed, another efficient means follows: that of fond rememberance of happy memories. Again, not just virtues but also certain practices can serve as means to pleasure.

Hath he not memory to bring to him past pleasures, the pleasures of a well-spent life, on which he may feed even while pain racks his members, and fever consumes his vitals?

A later portion of the tenth chapter of A Few Days in Athens then evaluates further how avoiding vices and cultivating virtues can protect us from suffering. Temperance helps to diminish suffering due to poverty; modesty helps to experience luxury in the midst of simplicity and to avoid anger, disapointment and pain; knowledge protects us from superstition. It is reminiscent to Philodemus’ instruction on how self-sufficiency (another important virtue) protects us from being too vulnerable.

What is poverty, if we have temperance, and can be satisfied with a crust, and a draught from the spring? If we have modesty, and can wear a woolen garment as gladly as a tyrian robe? What is slander, if we have no vanity that it can wound, and no anger that it can kindle? What is neglect, if we have no ambition that it can disappoint, and no pride that it can mortify? What is persecution, if we have our own bosoms in which to retire, and a spot of earth to sit down and rest upon? What is death, when without superstition to clothe him with terrors, we can cover our heads, and go to sleep in his arms?

Vulnerability and Virtue

Fortitude and vulnerability are not opposed in a fluid system, whereas the philosophers of logic might invent sillogisms according to which they are mutually exclusive. In our system, just as both anger and gratitude can have virtuous dispositions, similarly vulnerability and fortitude can be virtuous.

Fear of death is then addressed, particularly the death of a friend or loved one, which is the most painful way in which we experience death. This is truly a difficult pain to bear, the author acknowledges, and she recalls the pleasures and the tenderness of friendship and of love for our close ones in one of the most moving portions of the novel.

Here, rather than feign fortitude, the author advises that we cry the necessary tears even as we engage in the pleasures of remembering our friends who have died. It should serve us as consolation that even crying and being vulnerable can be a virtue. Crying is essential to avoid depression and resolve grief, and our tears even contain toxins so that we are literally cleansed through them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with crying. It is entirely natural, and sometimes unavoidable, and we should not fear being vulnerable. Tied in with this, is the teaching that we should never avoid loving someone for fear of losing them at a later point because “happiness forbids it”. The author here presents us with the challenge of wishing that we had never met our loved ones.

And is it forbidden to us to mourn its loss? If it be, the power is not with us to obey. Should we, then, to avoid the evil, forego the good? Shall we shut love from our hearts, that we may not feel the pain of his departure? No; happiness forbids it. Experience forbids it. Let him who hath laid on the pyre the dearest of his soul, who hath washed the urn with the bitterest tears of grief — let him say if his heart hath ever formed the wish that it had never shrined within it him whom he now deplores. Let him say if the pleasures of the sweet communion of his former days doth not still live in his remembrance. If he love not to recall the image of the departed, the tones of his voice, the words of his discourse, the deeds of his kindness, the amiable virtues of his life. If, while he weeps the loss of his friend, he smiles not to think that he once possessed him. He who knows not friendship, knows not the purest pleasure of earth.

The rush of endorphins (the hormone associated with pleasure) that takes place after a good cry makes the case for crying and being vulnerable as an Epicurean virtue: it produces pleasure in the end and resolves grief. Crying, therefore, can also be an efficient means to maximizing pleasure.

This, then, my sons, is our duty, for this is our interest and our happiness; to seek our pleasures from the hands of the virtues, and for the pain which may befall us, to submit to it with patience, or bear up against it with fortitude. To walk, in short, through life innocently and tranquilly. – A Few Days in Athens, Chapter X

Contrast this approach to emotions to the Stoic ideal of apathy, which deprives us of our full humanity and is sometimes an affront to our nature, as the above considerations and ethical challenges related to the death of a friend should make evident. It might even be considered cowardice to live our lives as a desperate attempt to avoid healthy and natural emotion, attachment and pain.

Our philosopher friends who are influenced by the Stoic school will notice how distinct our approaches are, and how far-reaching are the repercussions of Epicurus’ instruction that we “must not force nature”. Emotions are symptoms that we are human, and they deserve our consideration and compassion. With that, I will close these reasonings with one final quote from the novel:

Everyone may be an Epicurean, but only a philosopher may be a Stoic.